When Steve Bruce walked away from Sheffield Wednesday mid-summer, few Owls fans would have fancied the Hillsborough club to be sitting pretty in third for Christmas. But that’s where Wednesday are after they extended their unbeaten run of results to six (W4-D2-L0) with a controversial 1-0 success over Bristol City on Sunday.
A late, disputed Barry Bannan penalty proved decisive against the Robins and the Owls are now enjoying their best position in the Championship this decade when excluding early season exchanges in August. Indeed, Wednesday have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence since Garry Monk was parachuted into position as manager in early September.
Directionless and rudderless prior to his appointment, Monk has galvanised the club at a difficult time. On the field, Wednesday have W8-D6-L3 under the new boss with only the top two teams in the league – Leeds and West Brom – earning more points. The Owls have recorded six clean sheets in those 17 showdowns and are unbeaten at Hillsborough.
However, aspirations of a potential promotion push have been dampened by events off the pitch. Wednesday are awaiting the outcome of charges that they breached the Football League’s profitability and sustainability rules, an allegation that could eventually result in a points deduction, one that’s mooted to be up to 21 points .
The background noise of the potential punishment hasn’t tempered optimism and it remains an unwanted distraction. Since news of the charges broke, and with the subsequent back and forth between Wednesday and the EFL, Monk and his players have insisted their focus remains on the matters they can affect rather than those that are out of their control.
More team-bonding activities have been on the agenda for the squad in recent weeks, with a first-team meeting early in December setting out a plan for group activities in the coming months. A Christmas trip to Barcelona was a chance for the first team to let their hair down and the boost of morale and togetherness certainly appears to have done the trick.
The Owls edged out Bristol City on Sunday without top goalscorer Steven Fletcher, who was out of action with illness. The Scot has been the leader of Wednesday’s attack this season, hitting 12 goals in 21 league outings, and his presence and link play was sorely missed. A Boxing Day return would be a welcome gift for Monk’s been buoyed by his team’s progress.
Speaking post-match on Sunday, Monk said, “The most important thing is I am seeing the growth in the team. If you go back a few months, Bristol City is the type of game in the latter stages where we would maybe have been the ones to make the mistake or shoot ourselves in the foot. It is great to see that we are not doing that now and we have learned from it.”
Refusing to be carried away and mindful of the sanctions hanging over the club, the Wednesday boss is determined to continue the Owls’ upward trajectory that’s matched by their upsurge in performance data figures. Monk’s men rank third for Expected Goals (xG) from open play ratio, as well as shots attempted from inside the penalty area, with resolute defensive displays being matched by inventive and penetrative offensive efforts.
Even with a potential points penalty heading to Hillsborough, don’t expect Wednesday to be dragged into the relegation dogfight. This resolute outfit are well capable of comfortably consolidating in the Championship.
Aston Villa have been dragged into the battle for Premier League survival following four successive losses. Dean Smith’s side saw their odds for the drop plummet from 7/4 to 10/11 after a thumping 3-1 reverse to relegation rivals Southampton at Villa Park on Saturday with injuries to key players now also beginning to hamper the Villans’ prospects.
The always-impressive John McGinn broke an ankle against Saints, ruling the midfield maestro out for the foreseeable, whilst towering centre-half Tyrone Mings is still crocked, robbing Villa of two of their much-needed stars and spine. With summer signing Wesley misfiring in front of goal, and an overreliance on Jack Grealish, concerns are mounting.
Arguably most alarming is the ease at which opposition outfits are fashioning shots at Villa’s goal this season. The Claret & Blue have conceded 328 attempts – more than any of their Premier League rivals – with their 18.22 average against the most in a Premier League campaign since Reading were relegated in 2012-13 (18.6), highlighting their issues.
The Second City are also allowing a divisional-high Expected Goals Against (xGA) figure, plus comfortably giving up the largest xG from open play tally, as well as over 11 shots from inside the penalty box on average per-game. Such numbers place enormous stress on a side to produce the goods in attacking areas and that’s noticeable in Villa’s results.
Of the seven games the Villans have avoided defeat in, six required Smith’s side to score at least twice, and since mid-October the newcomers have only reached that target twice in nine outings. And so the pressure is most definitely on to find a fix with festive fixtures against Norwich and Watford to come before a clash against Burnley on New Year’s Day